Amateur Hour

The World Series of Poker Main Event, which is held annually in Las Vegas, is contested each year by more than 6,000 players. With such huge numbers of mostly amateur players, the odds against a professional winning have lengthened considerably (by way of contrast, in 2000 there were just 500 contestants). A professional poker player hasn’t won the World Series Main Event since 2002.

Something similar, I’ve heard it suggested, is happening at the Edinburgh Fringe. The sheer number of acts has made it much harder for professional comedians to get the audience numbers they require, or the attention from the press, agents and various industry types that they crave. In a jungle of two thousand shows, it has become too easy to get lost. To be more precise, this worry applies not to the likes of Omid Djalili or Rich Hall, but to comics who have not yet made a national reputation for themselves. They find themselves squeezed from both above and below: audience members who want to conserve their cash will opt either for free shows, or for faces familiar to them from television.[i]

It’s not clear whether the massive expansion of the Fringe in the past couple of decades really has impacted on how professional acts have performed. There is no doubt that it is difficult to break even at a paying venue, or to even come close. What is not so clear is whether it has become more or less difficult since the advent of the Free Fringe and the Free Festival. Furthermore, the difficulty of breaking even is in part due to other factors, such as the increasing cost of hiring a paying venue. And while it stands to reason that the vastly increased competition would drive down the audience sizes of many paying shows, it is also worth bearing in mind that the huge overall audience at the Fringe is partly due to the huge overall range of acts performing there. Without the various amateur acts, the Fringe would still be bigger than any of the other comedy festivals that take place across Britain and beyond, but it would be unlikely to be quite as dominant.

The second and more interesting issue concerns an assumption in the background of this complaint: that professional acts are more entitled to be at the Fringe, and are being unfairly hobbled by competition from amateur acts which in many cases are little better than vanity projects.[ii] There is, it must be admitted, a grain of truth to this complaint. Anyone who has seen free shows at the Fringe has likely seen at least a few which were thoroughly misguided, and will probably have passed up the opportunity to see many more in the same bracket. And while the same could be said of certain paying shows, the greater financial pressures on these (plus the influence of management, agents etc.) tends to keep down the number of utter follies.

However, complaints about the low standard of some, or even many, free shows miss the point of the Fringe. It was, after all, started in 1947 precisely as an (often amateur) alternative to the professional shows of the Edinburgh International Festival. To the extent that the Fringe has a guiding principle, it is precisely that there is no vetting process; that anyone can put on a show if they have the time and enthusiasm. Of course, performers with these attributes may not have the talent or craftsmanship to produce worthwhile work, but that’s the inevitable risk of an unjuried festival. There is also a lot to be said for the idea that the Fringe belongs at least as much to those performers for whom being there is an end in itself, as it does to the (mostly professional) acts for whom being there is a month-long means to a television contract. It’s a bit pat to say that there should be room for both in the biggest arts festival on Earth – the complaint is motivated precisely by the worry that there is not – but it is reasonable to ask why professional acts should automatically be granted precedence.

[i] Some professionals do have free shows, and some amateur performers (such as the better-known university sketch troupes) play at paying venues – but these are in each case very much in the minority.
[ii] I should confess an interest here – I’ve been involved in a number of Fringe shows, none of which were professional.

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